CLEVELAND - In front of a hometown crowd in this afternoon's earlier session, things were going just about as well as they possibly could for Ohio State. Then came Penn State. Just as fearless as their leader, the Nittany Lions were unafraid, loose, relaxed and ready to seize a prime opportunity.
With the uncertainty of the team race palpable in the Quicken Loans Arena air, it was Penn State junior Bo Nickal who brought a hush across the largest NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships crowd in history. It lasted only a few blinks though, as the Nittany Lion sent the record-setting crowd into pure pandemonium at the bat of an eyelid.
"I was nervous for a second, but he'd already adjusted so that's Bo Nickal for 'ya," Penn State head assistant coach Casey Cunningham said.
It was less than a half hour prior that he and Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson were matside as Nickal flew through the puffs of green tinted smoke and pyrotechnics to meet Ohio State's Myles Martin for the ninth time. A second consecutive NCAA Championship was obviously on the line, but so was something else - the team title.
"I think the thing about the pressure is, you can let it be positive or negative and the thing is, I want the pressure because if there's anybody going out there with the team title on the line, I would just pick myself," Nickal said.
That's just the type of confidence that Sanderson and his staff have so seemingly perfected.
"I think our job as a staff is to believe in these guys and try to help them really to believe in themselves," Sanderson said. "An I'm not - as a coach, I'm not afraid to lose. That's what we talk to our team about, it's a very important aspect."
As Martin reached in to throw Nickal, the three-time All-American knew just what to do, rolling through before locking up the fall at the 2:29 mark.
"I've done that move a lot, ever since I was probably about 12 or 13 so just, knowing that position so well, I knew kind of what was going to happen before it did and once I got him over on his back I knew it was going to happen and it did," Nickal said. "Once that happened, I was pretty excited and just kind of freaked out."
So did the Q.
Seconds after the sound of the referee slapping the mat, Nickal lifted Cunningham before jumping into the outstretched arms of Sanderson. Meanwhile, his teammates came streaming from the green tunnel led by fellow NCAA national finalist Mark Hall to greet him - the very Nittany Lion Penn State needed to perform with the team title on the line.
"Having these guys around me who support me and love me and want me to be the best, that gives me that confidence to go out there and know that I'm going to go out there and compete to the best of my ability and I just did it for my team," Nickal said clutching his 2018 NCAA Championships Most Outstanding Wrestler trophy with his championship hat on.
Just like that Penn State punctuated an NCAA national finals performance awfully similar to the one it put on exactly 365 days prior.
Penn State is nine for 10 across the last two years with five finalists in back-to-back concluding sessions.
Top-seeded Zain Retherford opened up the finals for the Nittany Lions with a 6-2 win against Lock Haven's No. 15 seed Ronnie Perry.
The only thing different for Retherford though, is that Saturday's finals marked his last in Penn State singlet. Becoming just the second three-time NCAA Champion in program history, the nerves were just the same as they were the other two times.
So Retherford went for a walk, taking time outside in the brisk but sunny streets of Cleveland to clear his mind by the sights of Lake Erie.
"I was feeling nervous all day so it's a good thing," Retherford said. "The first time I won a national championship was in New York City and I the night before I got maybe an hour or two of sleep, just excited about it. That was kind of what I felt today so I knew I was in a good place. Coach Cael just grabbed me aside before this just said be patient and you don't need to rush and score points, just take them as they come and keep getting your leads so that's kind of where my head was at emotionally."
Coming off a knee injury that saw third-seeded Jason Nolf sidelined for the end of the season, he powered his way back to the finals, knocking off NC State's top-seeded Hayden Hidlay.
Turning aside an early shot from the previously undefeated redshirt freshman, Nolf responded with a takedown for a 2-0 lead and didn't look back.
"Right away he had me in a double leg and I got pretty nervous," Nolf said. "I don't know why he didn't finish it because I thought that I was about to get taken down but I fought out of it somehow, I got my back to center and I got to a couple leg attacks and just kept scoring from there."
Then came No. 3 seed Vincenzo Joseph in a highly anticipated matchup against Illinois' top-seeded Isaiah Martinez.
Joseph struck first, registering a takedown late in the first period before adding two back points for a 4-0 lead that he wouldn't relinquish.
"We kept both digging under hooks, stuff like that, kind of typical for how our matches go and I just felt it so I went for it," Joseph said.
Anticipating an aggressive match just like those in the past, this time, Joseph went in with something different.
"I think we were both more offensive this match," Joseph said. "I tend to kind of hang out a lot and stuff whenever I wrestle but this match I made sure that I wanted to go out there with purpose, try to score points offensively and I felt pretty good."
Joseph brought the crowd to its feet with a yet another NCAA upset victory against Martinez for his second consecutive NCAA crown.
Perhaps different from last year's run though, was Hall, who came up short in a tough battle against Arizona State's top-seeded Zahid Valencia.
It's a loss like that, where it's Hall's coaches and teammates who are all feeling for the sophomore even amid the excitement of a seventh NCAA Championship team title in the last eight years.
"I'm incredibly proud of Mark Hall," Sanderson said. "I think he wrestled a fantastic tournament, just had a tough match there in the finals against a very, very good wrestler. But Mark was on fire with a lot of bonus points and I'm bummed for him. It hurts."
Even with the sting of loss in the finals, there's no doubting that Penn State has achieved something truly unique.
"Penn State wrestling is on another level," Nickal said. "It's different. The program we have at Penn State, you don't really want to compare it because there's no comparison to any other program in the country. Any team that I've had in the past, this is easily the best team I've had and I'm just so grateful to be a part of it. It's unlike any other."